The Kika de la Garza Subtropical Agricultural Research Center (SARC) in Weslaco, a facility operated by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service along the U.S.-Mexico border in the Texas Rio Grande Valley, is a laboratory historically critical to agriculture research and a leader in detection of tropical diseases and pests affecting U.S. agriculture.

But the days of the center’s research could soon be over thanks to congressional budget cuts, which have earmarked the center for closure in the months ahead, a development local, regional and national agricultural groups are calling both tragic and potentially dangerous.

The Weslaco center, along with nine other ARS centers across the nation, is on a list of budget cuts that will result in the closing or reduction of field-based research conducted in South Texas, a key research location for inbound tropical pests and disease and the largest ARS research center in the U.S.

Food safety, international standards, invasive species -- these are serious concerns on the South Texas border, a place where fruit and vegetable production is a way of life and where nearly half of all Mexico fruit and vegetable exports enter the U.S. Losing the SARC increases the risks of accidental or intentional introduction of invasive species, a disruption of international commerce and contamination of the U.S. food supply.

“The scientists at this lab play a pivotal role in the fight against costly insect pests and invasive species by continuing to improve application methods such as internationally registered organic insecticides and quarantine technology and standards for imported fruits and vegetables,” says Ray Prewett, president of Texas Citrus Mutual in Mission, Texas. “In many respects the center is the first and last defense against subtropical pests and diseases entering the U.S. agriculture system from Mexico, and without this protection, serious consequences could develop that could have a devastating effect on the U.S. agriculture industry.”

Prewett has been traveling back and forth to Washington in an effort to lobby on behalf of the Weslaco research center, meeting with key budget appropriation officials at USDA-ARS and with key lawmakers in an effort to support what he called a “serious threat to agriculture.

“The citrus industry, potato industry, honey producers, vegetable producers, sugar growers and homeland security interests have all expressed concern over the potential closing or reduction in services offered by the lab. Frankly, there is growing concern for the U.S. food safety without the watchful eye of this important facility,” Prewett adds.

But in spite of his efforts along with a host of other agriculture support groups who are asking USDA to spare the center, the outlook is dismal.

“As it stands now, there appears to be little hope of saving the center as we know it today. It appears destined for closure,” he said in late September. “Funding has been authorized to continue operations (at the center) for about six weeks after the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 (2011),  and partial funding is available for reduced programs through fiscal year 2012. But there’s little hope the center can be saved. Work has already begun, in fact, to determine what programs can be moved to other facilities such as universities and other ARS centers.”